A Global Look at Complementarianism


Complementarianism is currently a hot issue in North American evangelicalism. North American culture is strongly egalitarian, and cultural pressure affects our theology whether we want to admit it or not. This cultural influence cuts both ways. Some of what passes for complementarian thinking owes more to American cultural conservatism than it does to the biblical theology of men and women. Similarly, some narrower expressions of complementarianism—as well as outright egalitarianism—may owe more to our secular culture’s current conversations. Be that as it may, complementarianism remains a significant feature of much of American evangelical life.

What about the rest of the evangelical world? Evangelical Christians around the globe read and revere the same Bible. Do they come to the same conclusions about gender roles in the church, the family, and the world? To explore this question, this study surveyed Christian workers engaged in theological education and/or pastoral training on each continent and in each of the major global ethnolinguistic affinities. All of these workers have years of experience in their part of the world and are fluent in the local language. They also all profess adherence to complementarian theology. Their responses are remarkably similar.

In Sub-Saharan Africa, which is rapidly becoming the center of gravity of global Christianity, traditional culture tends to be patriarchal. However, evangelical churches are starting to lean increasingly toward either overt or de facto egalitarianism. This trend sometimes takes the form of a married couple serving as co-pastors.

In Europe, the evangelical churches in the east are typically more complementarian (or simply traditional). Egalitarianism becomes more pronounced the further west one goes.

In the Islamic Middle East and Central Asia, the full dignity and humanity of women remains an issue in question in popular culture. This notion sometimes carries over into evangelical Christianity. For this reason, much of what passes for complementarianism may actually be due more to cultural traditionalism than to biblical conviction. Even in these regions, however, egalitarianism is on the rise, sometimes in countries that would surprise the average Western Christian.

South Asia, home to well over a billion people (including the world’s largest populations of both Hindus and Muslims), is similar to the Middle East and Central Asia. Male leadership in the church and in the home remains the majority view, but that majority is beginning to wane.

East Asia is also home to over a billion people, and here, male leadership in the home remains the dominant practice. The phenomenon of female pastors in the church, however, is extremely common. Complementarianism is often viewed as a North American cultural phenomenon that missionaries are attempting to impose on East Asian churches rather than a biblical position.

Southeast Asia is a religiously diverse region. Churches in traditionally Buddhist countries typically take a more relaxed attitude toward female leadership in the church than those in traditionally Islamic countries.

Latin American culture is heavily influenced, in many countries, by the tradition of machismo. Yet both in Portuguese-speaking Brazil and Spanish-speaking Latin America, the phenomenon of la pastora is commonplace. This often refers to the wife of the male pastor. She is regarded as having some sort of pastoral role, and there is widespread acceptance of women in the pastorate in general.

In summary, complementarianism is the majority view in only a few places around the world. In many of those places, it is rooted more in traditional culture than in biblical conviction. There are many places in the world where complementarianism is a minority view, and it seems to be on the decline everywhere.

What are the common factors at work in each of these regions?

Overwhelmingly, each participant in this survey mentioned the influence of some form of Pentecostalism as the most significant factor in the acceptance of women as pastors. This influence comes both from mainstream, orthodox Pentecostalism and from prosperity-oriented Neo-Pentecostalism. Pentecostal churches have had women serving as pastors from the early days of the movement. Both classical and Neo-Pentecostalism are hugely influential in Latin America and the Persian speaking world, and the Neo-Pentecostal movement has also swept through Sub-Saharan Africa and much of East and Southeast Asia. Television broadcasters like TBN and prosperity preachers like Joyce Meyers dominate the religious broadcasting world, and can be found in the remotest places on the planet. The examples and teachings of these movements have given the overwhelming impression that women pastors and preachers are the norm in the Christian world.

Another factor is the pervasive influence of secular Western culture. The world may be post-colonial, but the West still colonizes global culture through its entertainment and its educational systems. Secular Western culture still carries the aura of intelligence and sophistication around the world. Complementarianism carries the stigma of traditionalism and obscurantism in the minds of secular Westerners, and this stigma carries over to Christians and churches in other parts of the world, especially among those who are connected to mainline denominations in the West.

Finally, traditionalism itself works against complementarianism in many places. In fallen culture after fallen culture around the world, traditional gender roles have too often involved male infidelity and abuse toward women. (As it has, we must admit, in the West). Where commitment to male headship in the home and church is rooted in traditionalism rather than biblical teaching, it is often seen as simply one more expression of injustice toward women.

Complementarianism is a declining conviction in the global evangelical church. The solution is neither a surrender to egalitarianism nor a return to cultural traditionalism. Instead, complementarian Christians must present a robust understanding of the glory of God’s creation design for men and women as bearers alike of the image of God, equal in dignity and worth, but wonderfully different in God’s creative wisdom.

Greg Turner

Greg Turner is a veteran missionary in Central Asia.

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